Bite Size Science: A Little Bit of Stardust
By Keir Liddle
Comets have the potential to tell us much about our solar system, includinf how it formed and evolved to its current state. However, they are not often seen with the naked eye (on average roughly one may be visible per year). Many of these appear faint and unspectacular, and observing them from Earth tells us little of great scientific value. Yet there are a reported 3,976 known comets (as of May 2010), and even this represents only a tiny fraction of the total potential comet population: the reservoir of comet-like bodies in the outer solar system may number one trillion.
The potential knowledge to be gained from studying comets has lead to NASA’s Stardust-NExT mission.
Stardust was designed to explore comets in order to help catalogue and understand the potential impact hazards to Earth from space, and learn how the solar system began and developed.
To this end, the Stardust spacecraft flew by comet Tempel 1 and observed changes since NASA’s Deep Impact mission visited it in 2005. Stardust thus became the first spacecraft to have explored two comets, having previously flown past comet wild 2 returning samples of its coma to earth.
Mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California, have today begun receiving the first of 72 anticipated images of comet Tempel 1 taken by the spacecraft. The first six, most distant approach images are available here and here.
Additional images, including those from closest approach, are being downlinked in chronological order and will be available later in the day.